Tim Lomas, principal adviser, CfBT/Lincolnshire School Improvement Service, looks at ways of continuing to improve the profile and teaching of history in schools.

Recent Ofsted and QCA monitoring evidence indicates a wide discrepancy between the effectiveness of primary and secondary history. Whilst the former is causing some concern, secondary history consistently performs well, especially in terms of the quality of teaching.

Initial impressions thus lead one to assume that secondary history faces few challenges. It is the envy of many other secondary curriculum areas. Recruiting good history teachers has rarely been a problem and the quality of trainees has never been higher. Monitoring evidence indicates strengths in all key stages and numbers opting for the subject have generally shown a rising trend for most of the last five years. AS and A2 numbers are healthy and grades have risen steadily at GCSE, AS and A2.

So what are the challenges? In some respects, the main problem with secondary history is that it is not much of a problem. Resources these days are often directed towards areas of challenge and this means that history rarely receives attention. Only infrequently does it appear in school improvement plans.
However, any successful product needs to keep improving to maintain its success. School history operates in a broader context and it needs to develop to remain effective. There are already issues of concern that good schools need to address to prevent an effective subject area from drifting downwards. Among these are:

  • the pressure on the timetable
  • relevance to the whole range of students
  • curriculum developments
  • staffing issues
  • the overall quality of learning in the subject
  • content imbalance and distortion
  • resources
  • subject monitoring.

Timetabling pressure

Monitoring evidence suggests that around 6.3% of curriculum time is devoted to history in Key Stage 3 but this figure masks considerable variation within a range from 3% to over 13%.

Anguished feedback to the Historical Association and other organisations highlights other pressures – attempts, for example, in some schools to squeeze it into two years in Key Stage 3, the threat to coherence caused by innovative curricular organisation and the reduction in the number of option blocks post-14. In some cases, history is squeezed into one option block competing against a range of popular subjects.

Relevance to the whole range of students There is a curious paradox in that history is relatively popular but that students do not regard it as very relevant. A recent East Midlands survey by Nottingham University examined the views of 1,400 Year 9 pupils. Only 42% of pupils claimed that history was useful for future life, compared with 62% for geography.

It may be that the reason for its increased popularity is the result of more of the higher-attaining students choosing it. In some schools less able students are steered away from it and it is being turned into a niche academic subject. There is already a perception that history is a difficult subject, especially at GCSE. The alternatives are limited – entry level history has never proved popular.

Curriculum developments

Policymakers frequently state that they see history as a key part of any broad and balanced curriculum. However, the curriculum is becoming increasingly overcrowded with citizenship, compulsory religious education, physical education etc all demanding time and space.

The humanities entitlement has ironically sometimes eliminated history as an option if geography produces good results. Further developments with the 14-19 white paper – especially the appearance of a whole series of vocational diplomas – may also have an adverse effect on the subject.

Staffing issues

Applicants for history posts are often highly qualified and there are often good fields. The Ofsted rating of 80% of history teaching being good or better, rising to 91% for A-level, indicates real strengths in this area. Worrying evidence, though, suggests a declining trend of fully qualified history departments. Many departments rely on non-specialists teaching the subject, especially at Key Stage 3, partly because of an erroneous belief in the school that it is one of the safer subjects to give to non-specialists.

Good teaching also needs to be accompanied by effective professional development. This is rarely a school priority. There are few opportunities for subject and skills updates. The small size of history departments also militates against effective development as the stimulus of interaction with others is often lacking. Even if available, the traditional support structures from local authorities, subject associations and higher education are stretched or declining. Advanced skills teachers have sometimes filled the gaps but their numbers are limited, unevenly spread and they face an uncertain future financially.

Quality of learning

Clearly, much good learning is taking place in many classrooms and attention given in recent years to aspects such as good questioning, targeted objectives and thinking skills has had some impact. Many history teachers, however, claim that pupil performance often flatters to deceive and that the real learning and understanding is actually very different from that suggested by the conventional measurements. There are frequent reports of flimsy knowledge, a poor sense of chronology and an absence of an enduring and deepening knowledge and understanding of the past.

A related aspect is the content imbalance and distortion. It is a difficult conundrum. Few schools would not desire a good local, national, European and global balance. The danger of trying to provide sufficient content, though, is superficiality. Understanding requires some coverage in depth. The end result is a limited curriculum dominated by Hitler and recent history. There are many losers, including black and multi-ethnic, non-European and local history.

History resources

In many respects history is relatively cheap to resource. Nevertheless, a good curriculum relies on a range of teaching and learning including sources, visits and access to ICT facilities. Pupils are often drawn to the subject by attractive textbooks but overall spending has often fallen. A Keele University survey showed that only one quarter of 13 and 14 year olds have access to a history textbook for homework and 40% have to share in class. The inevitable consequence is photocopied materials.

There is the additional challenge caused by the availability of published resources. With so many schools teaching a narrow range of content, publishers merely respond to this market, focusing on the same periods and hence contributing to this vicious circle of a narrow curriculum.

Subject monitoring

Whilst the National Strategies have improved assessment in many history departments, especially with the emphasis on assessment for learning, there is still evidence that assessment in a sizeable number of departments is having little impact on curriculum planning. Furthermore, pupils are receiving little or no feedback on how to make further progress in history. The lack of reliability with regard to the evidence means that pupils’ misconceptions are not being challenged and that the awareness of how well understanding is embedded remains limited.

There are two other potential problems for the subject. Firstly, attainment data in history does not contribute to school league tables. Secondly, the new Ofsted framework does not place much evidence on subjects such as history. The combination of both these may lead schools to assume that there are far more pressing areas to address.

Many of the above challenges do not have easy solutions. What follows are some suggestions on how some of these challenges can be addressed.

Establish the case for history

History departments need to devote energy to arguing the real relevance of the subject in a broad and balanced curriculum. There needs to be clarification of what it contributes to an overall curriculum and to broader subjects skills and dimensions such as citizenship, ICT, literacy, outdoor education and the vocational element. The contribution to life competencies such as critical analysis, tolerance and the ability to balance evidence and communicate effectively, needs to be constantly re-emphasised.

This relevance needs to be stressed to all students and not just the higher attainers. Without over-pleading the case, it also needs to be made clear to stakeholders such as pupils, parents, sponsors and governors, especially in terms of understanding the world today and its relevance for employability. History will always be an option, so marketing skills need to be honed. There are packs that can be used, such as the Historical Association’s ‘Choosing History at 14’ which indicates, among other things, that a very wide range of careers are available to those who study the subject.

Monitor student interests

History need not be taught narrowly. More focus could often be given to the student voice. There is increasing evidence about what they enjoy. Secondary students point to their appreciation of variety, genuine investigations, a focus on people as three-dimensional human beings with emotions and feelings, limited amounts of source work, opportunities for depth, fieldwork, visitors, blood and gore, problem solving and good stories.

What they often criticise is the excessive content coverage, passive approaches, questions that do not inspire, low-level worksheets and too much writing. More can often be done to encourage reading history for pleasure and discussion of the ever-popular television history programmes.

Create an atmosphere of quality

Interesting and varied teaching does lead to high standards but there is a need for effective monitoring of the progress of all students to ensure that the quality is being maintained. Such teaching also comes from passion. Specialist teaching is usually the ideal but, at the very least, the department needs teachers with a passion and enthusiasm for the subject.

Continuing professional development is essential to maintain enthusiasm and ideas. The department needs to look outwards beyond the school, perhaps supporting colleagues who become examiners. Students respond positively to history departments that enter competitions, organise visits, history clubs, revision classes, lectures, a school museum, history magazine or history news section. Quality can also be affected by the accommodation and resources used.

Review the curriculum

Those who manage their finances shop around constantly for better deals even though it can be a nuisance at times. Departments can achieve much through review and a series of regular improvements. Varying an aspect of the QCA scheme, using different resources for a particular theme, introducing a local history dimension to a national theme or producing a new problem to solve can all keep the subject fresh.

There is also the need to be aware of new developments and to consider them carefully. Seventy secondary schools are now trialling the GCSE pilot with its radical 75% internal assessment and vocational element.

Raise the learning stakes

To raise the learning stakes in history, activities need to extend thinking and not allow extensive amounts of copying and plagiarism.Learning needs to challenge misconceptions. Pupils need to compare history across time, place and theme rather than seeing it as a series of unconnected episodes. They need to be encouraged to develop ideas and plan investigations. Unfinished and disorganised work needs to be challenged constantly and opportunities for avoidance tactics eliminated. Questions need to be largely open-ended, involve choices and decisions, excite curiosity (avoiding the ‘so what’ attitude) and provoke a response.
Above all, the right classroom ethos needs to be created, such as encouraging risk taking and ideas, praise for effort and learning stamina and an atmosphere where it is seen as ‘cool’ to work.

Understanding of progression

All those teaching history need to understand what it means to get better at history and what the tell-tale signs are. This means going beyond the level descriptions. Such features might be summarised as follows:

Pupils get better at history when they:

  • are more selective when answering historical questions showing ability to summarise and generalise
  • use their imagination in a more mature way, eg to imagine what people at the time felt like, in making inferences and deductions, to fill gaps in evidence and extract the maximum from sources
  • can make connections, comparisons and contrasts across time, place and theme so they can place events in a wider context and discuss typicality
  • explain rather than just describe and reconstruct
  • plan, organise and communicate history with growing independence and initiative
  • become more confident in using the key concepts such as time, change, reasons and results, interpretations, sources as evidence, significance – reinforcing key ideas behind an understanding of these concepts
  • show a growing emotional intelligence and affective understanding – greater understanding of people and what makes them tick.